Part 3 – the Ugly
Critical theory summarized
Critical theory unifies the essays in this anthology. Since critical theory is an interdisciplinary project that spans decades and dozens of distinct fields, defining it can be challenging. Moreover, since it often functions as a worldview (that is, as a comprehensive, interpretive framework for understanding reality), its tenets are often implicitly adopted rather than being explicitly stated. However, I’ll try to list a few of its fundamental assumptions, providing quotes from the book to illustrate each point (see below; more available on request).
– Premise 1: human relationships should be fundamentally understood in terms of power dynamics, which differentiates groups into ‘oppressors’ and ‘the oppressed’
– Premise 2: Our identity as individuals is inseparable from our group identity, especially our categorization as ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’ with respect to a particular identity marker
– Premise 3: All oppressed groups find their fundamental unity in their common experience of oppression
– Premise 4: The fundamental human project is liberation from all forms of oppression; consequently, the fundamental virtue is standing in solidarity against the oppressor
The four principles outlined above are not a random assortment of disconnected beliefs. Instead, they form a unified, coherent framework for viewing everything about our lives, from our identity, to our fundamental problem (oppression), to our fundamental moral duty (fighting for liberation), to the basis for unity between individuals (common oppression/solidarity). If we adopt them, they will dramatically influence how we think about many important issues, from poverty to abortion to human sexuality.
Before offering any critique of these premises, let me point out how helpful they are in terms of explanatory power. For example, premises 1 and 2 explain why the phrase “white heterosexual male” can be used not just descriptively but pejoratively. If we think about people primarily as individual moral agents, then it makes little sense to criticize their gender or skin color, unless we are engaging in the basest form of prejudice. On the other hand, if we are thinking about people primarily in terms of groups and recognize that white heterosexual males have historically perpetrated many heinous evils (as, of course, have other groups), then it makes more sense to see the group as a whole as collectively guilty and therefore worthy of censure.
Another example: why aren’t other groups open to censure to the same degree? Because of the power differential stated in premise 1. Other groups may bear collective guilt (say, white women), but because they have historically had less power, they are not seen as equally morally culpable.
Final example: premises 3 and 4 explain why there is so much overlap between anti-racism groups, feminist groups, and LGBT advocacy groups. The members of these groups are united because they share a common experience of oppression, and are also united against a common enemy: hegemonic power structures.
To be clear, I am not yet offering any criticism of these beliefs. I am simply demonstrating how prevalent they are and how, once we recognize them, they have power to explain otherwise surprising phenomena.
“Like racism, sexism is a system of beliefs and behaviors by which a group is oppressed, controlled, and exploited because of presumed gender differences…. Homophobia – the fear of homosexuality- is part of the system of social control that legitimates and enforces gender oppression. It supports the system of compulsory heterosexuality” Andersen, p. 51-52
“Power is typically equated with domination and control over people or things. Social institutions depend on this version of power to reproduce hierarchies of race, class, and gender.” Andersen, p. 450
“what Fanon taught me was the liberating power of anger… [as an Asian-American] I chose to ally myself with people of color, anti-colonialist movements, and a non-Eurocentric consciousness.” Mura, p. 16
“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor… I was taught [wrongly] to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will” McIntosh p. 73
“I, as a Japanese-American, feel a kinship to both Blacks and Native Americans that I do not feel with white Americans. It… comes from our histories as victims of injustice” – Mura, p. 14
“I realized I could be beaten on the street for being a [lesbian]. If my sister’s being beaten because she’s Black, it’s pretty much the same principle.. The connection is blatant… “Moraga, p. 23
“We need to overcome divisions among working people, not by ignoring the multiple oppressions many of us encounter, or by oppressing each other, but by becoming committed allies on all issues which affect working people: racism, sexism, classism, etc. An injury to one is an injury to all.” Langston, p. 120
“Racism…, Sexism,…Ageism. Heterosexism. Elitism. Classism. It is a lifetime pursuit for each one of us to extract these distortions from our living” Lorde, p. 496
Critical theory critiqued
In the last section, I explained four basic tenets of critical theory without offering any critique. In this post, I’ll challenge those beliefs, without adopting a specific religious position. In the next post, I’ll explain why I think critical theory is incompatible with Christianity in particular.
First, let’s take a moral principle like “No one should be silenced because of their gender.” Most people would agree with this statement. In fact, most people would recognize that silencing someone because of their gender is a blatant form of sexism. However, critical theory entails that it can be acceptable to silence someone because of gender if his gender is male. Why?
Because of historical and present-day power dynamics, all males are part of an ‘oppressor’ group. When a man speaks, his position of power is potentially a form of oppression, particularly if he says something that a woman experiences as oppression. In that case, the woman is justified in silencing him, even if the same statements in the mouth of a woman would have not been experienced as oppressive. The same reasoning applies to silencing someone because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc… Provided that they are identified with an ‘oppressor’ group, silencing them because of that identity marker can be morally permissible as a consequence of our fundamental moral duty to resist oppression. Many other behaviors such as ridicule, marginalization, and exclusion can also be justified by the identity of the victim. An inherently asymmetric view of human relationships leads to an asymmetric view of moral duties.
If this scenario seems fanciful, it’s worth looking at recent examples of student activism from Evergreen State or Middlebury, or talking to men engaged in abortion dialogue. These problems exist; I would even say that they’re endemic in certain cultural circles. Yet most of us recognize that they are immoral and justify the very discrimination that critical theorists claim to want to eradicate.
Second, consider what a consistent application of critical theory would mean for other human relationships, like the parent-child relationship. On the basis of critical theory, we would have to conclude that children are an oppressed class, suffering under the oppression of adults. Clearly, there is a power differential between parents and children. Children are socially and even physically compelled to obey their parents’ commands. We could point to the historical injustices of child labor or the fact that children suffer physical and sexual abuse at far higher rates than adults, usually at the hands of adults. Moreover, the idea of a ‘child’ is a social construct that varies by culture. So aren’t we morally obligated to work for the liberation of children from their parents?
Or what about the mentally ill? Or criminals? Mentally ill adults and criminals are often held, against their will, in institutions. There is a long history of horrific abuses (lobotomies, sterilization) within the mental health and criminal justice systems. Many crimes and mental illnesses are social constructs that differ between cultures. So why are we not morally obligated to deconstruct notions of mental illness and criminality? Why don’t we see labels like ‘psychopathy’ or ‘homicide’ as tools of oppression?
These conclusions seem fanciful, but they are not. Several authors in Race, Class, and Gender listed “adultism” alongside sexism and racism as forms of oppression. Another author insisted that property crimes (like theft) were social constructs invented for the oppression of the poor and minorities. Philosopher Michel Foucault believed that “mental illness” was a classification invented to exclude “undesireables” from society. These ideas may seem laughable but they are the natural consequences of critical theory.
Finally, critical theory is self-refuting because it turns a blind eye to the power dynamics that critical theory *itself* creates and perpetuates. Power is context-dependent. A trait that may give you power in one setting can be the basis for your oppression in another setting. For example, in the United States, I plausibly enjoy “Christian privilege.” Drop me in Saudi Arabia, and that privilege turns into a liability. This line of reasoning raises a serious question: if a white person or a male or a conservative or an evangelical Christian finds himself marginalized and excluded by those who embrace critical theory, then hasn’t ‘critical theory’ become a means of oppression? And isn’t it our duty to liberate people from the oppression of critical theory by deconstructing it or silencing those who practice it? Critical theory devours itself and saws off the very branch it’s sitting on. It wields its principles selectively. As soon as we apply it universally, it undermines its own authority.
See all content on critical theory here.